BHUBANESWAR Cyclone Fani, the strongest storm to hit the Indian subcontinent in five years, has barrelled into Bangladesh after leaving a trail of deadly destruction across the eastern coast of India.
At least 16 people died in India, mostly in the worst-hit state of Odisha, Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler said on Saturday, citing local Indian media reports.
In neighbouring Bangladesh, authorities said at least 12 people died and scored of others wounded as Fani swung northeastwards into the country. At least four of those deaths were reported from Kishoreganj district in central Bangladesh.
“They died after they were struck by lightning. There have been heavy rains and storm here since Friday noon,” Deputy Commissioner Sarwar Murshed Chowdhury told Al Jazeera.
Kabir Ahmed, Deputy Commissioner of Barguna district, said an elderly woman and her grandson died around 3 am on Saturday morning after a tree fell on their tin-shed home.
Millions moved to safety
Over a million people were moved to safety, Bangladeshi officials said, a massive evacuation exercise also followed in India’s Odisha state, where a similar cyclone 20 years ago had killed 10,000 people.
After it made landfall early on Friday, tropical cyclone Fani had lost some of its power and was downgraded to a ‘Deep Depression’ by the Indian Meteorological Department as the storm moved inland over Bangladesh.
A storm surge still breached embankments to submerge dozens of villages on Bangladesh’s low-lying coast, a disaster ministry official in Dhaka said.
“We are mooring our boat because it’s the only means of income for us. Only Allah knows when we can go back to fishing again,” Akbar Ali, a fisherman near the town of Dacope in Bangladesh, told AFP news agency while battling surging waves to tie his boat to a tree.
“The fear of a major disaster is mostly over as it has weakened,” Shamsuddin Ahmed, director of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, told Al Jazeera.
Reporting from New Delhi, Al Jazeera’s Heidler said the priority for Indian authorities is to reach the areas hit by the monster cyclone.
“The biggest concern now is clearing the roads so that they can get to the communities that are cut off,” he said, adding that the hardest-hit areas are without electricity.
Heidler said there are also fears over Fani (“snake’s hood” in Bengali) triggering a heavy rainfall or storm surge along the eastern Indian coast.
Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s chief minister and a key figure in India’s ongoing general election, cancelled all political rallies and set up an improvised control room in a hotel in the path of the storm.
Odisha state worst hit
Worst hit was the Indian state of Odisha where Fani made landfall on Friday, packing winds gusting up to 200km an hour, sending coconut trees flying, knocking down power lines and cutting off water and telecommunications.
As authorities assessed the damage, Indian media reported that at least 12 people died across Odisha, with most deaths caused by falling trees.
But a mass evacuation of 1.2 million people in the 24 hours before Fani made landfall averted a greater loss of life.
The seaside temple town of Puri, which lay directly in the path of Fani, suffered extensive damage.
“Destruction is unimaginable … Puri is devastated,” Odisha’s Special Relief Commissioner Bishnupada Sethi told Reuters news agency, adding that over a 100 people were injured.
At least six people died in Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital, where fallen trees blocked roads and electricity supply was still to be fully restored.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is in the midst of a general election, said in a tweet that he would visit Odisha on Monday.
Bhubaneswar airport suffered considerable damage, but would re-open on Saturday afternoon, India’s aviation ministry said.
Shelters were set up in schools and other safe buildings to accommodate the evacuees, who included scores of tourists.
Neighbouring West Bengal state escaped substantial damage, but authorities moved nearly 45,000 people to safer locations.
The cyclone season in the Bay of Bengal can last from April to December.
Fani, Mala, Helen, Nargis: How are cyclones named?
Mala, Helen, Nargis and Nilofer may sound like the names of yesteryear Bollywood actors, but they are, in fact, lethal cyclones that have brought violent winds, heavy rains and wreaked destruction.
As Cyclone Fani pounded the Odisha coast on Friday, the name, which was suggested by Bangladesh, also evoked curiosity.
Mritunjay Mohapatra, the additional director general of the India Meteorological Department (IMD), said Fani, pronounced as ‘Foni’, means a snake’s hood.
But how are cyclones named?
The World Meteorological Organisation/Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific Panel on Tropical Cyclones, at its twenty-seventh session held in 2000 in Muscat, Oman, agreed to assign names to the tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea.
After long deliberations among the member countries, the naming of tropical cyclones over north Indian Ocean commenced from September 2004.
The eight countries along the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea suggest names that are sequentially listed. The nations suggest names alphabetically — Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre (RSMC) based here gives a tropical cyclone an identification from the names list. The identification system covers both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
So, for instance, Bangladesh suggested ‘Onil’ the first in the list. Onil originated in Arabian Sea, off the Gujarat coast between September to October 2004. It made landfall in the state, but impacted both India and Pakistan.
Cyclone Phetai, suggested by Thailand, originated in the Bay of Bengal and made landfall in Andhra Pradesh, ravaging the coastal districts in December last year.
The next cyclone, whenever it originates, will be named ‘Vayu’, suggested by India.
Of the 64 names suggested by these eight countries, 57 have been utilised.
Some of the names suggested by India are Agni, Jali, Bijli, Akash, while Mala, Helen and Nilofar were suggested by Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively.
These lists are used sequentially and they are not rotated every few years, unlike the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific lists.
“A storm causes so much death and destruction that its name is considered for retirement and hence is not used repeatedly.
“If the public wants to suggest the name of a cyclone to be included in the list, the proposed name must meet some fundamental criteria,” a circular on naming the cyclones over the North Indian Ocean said.
“The name should be short and readily understood when broadcast. Further, the names must not be culturally sensitive and must not convey some unintended and potentially inflammatory meaning,” it added.
The name can be communicated to the director general of the IMD.
According to the IMD, in the beginning, storms were named arbitrarily.
Laxman Singh Rathore, a former director general of the IMD, said the practice of naming the storm first started in the United States. This helped identify it and also aided the researchers.
Earlier, the storm was named after the coast it hit, Rathore added.
“Then the mid-1900s saw the start of practice of using feminine names for storms. In the pursuit of a more organised and efficient naming system, meteorologists later decided to identify storms using names from a list arranged alphabetically,” the IMD said explaining the genesis of the naming process.
“Before the end of 1900s, forecasters started using male names for those forming in the Southern Hemisphere. Since 1953, Atlantic tropical storms have been named from lists originated by the National Hurricane Centre. They are now maintained and updated by an international committee of the World Meteorological Organisation,” the IMD added.
Storms over South Pacific and Indian Ocean are known as cyclones. In the North Atlantic, central North Pacific, and eastern North Pacific, the term hurricane is used.
The same type of disturbance in the Northwest Pacific is called a typhoon, according to the National Ocean Service of the US’ National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.